The Reluctant Midwife: A Hope River Novel
by Patricia Harman

William Morrow Paperbacks, 2015. ISBN 978-0062358240.
Reviewed by Martha Meacham
Posted on 01/06/2015

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Mainstream

I was captivated by The Reluctant Midwife: A Hope River Novel, which is set in rural West Virginia in the 1930's. I was immediately drawn to the mystery of why surgeon Dr. Blum suddenly became mute and remained so. Why would his nurse of over seven years, Becky Meyers, tote him from place to place, caring for him when they had only a professional relationship? Because of his nearly catatonic state, he had lost his medical practice and both lost their livelihood. I eagerly followed the trail of clues while the lives of Nurse Becky, Dr. Blum, and Patience Hester and her husband were woven together. Author Patricia Harmon's voice brought life to the unfolding drama. And I became one of the neighbors of the small rural community who kept tabs on everyone living in within its boundaries.

You wouldn't need to have a particular interest in midwifery to be swept up by The Reluctant Midwife. Harman's descriptions of the Depression-era West Virginia countryside—the mountains, rivers and plants—provide a vivid backdrop for this narrative.

The 1930's weren't so different from the challenges and hardships we face. The characters live during hard economic times that shake up the lives of folk from all walks of life. Natural disasters and drought have far-reaching impact on the livelihoods of families throughout the nation. There is racial strife. There are sacrifices by those serving in the armed forces. There are social implications for families of wounded warriors returning home with visible and unseen scars. Much of this certainly resonates today.

The life of nurse Becky takes a twisted turn along her professional path, and the reader shares her trepidation and responses to the events around her. New government programs, like the Civilian Conservation Corps, are developed to stimulate the economy. Radio broadcasts bring news of Hitler in Germany and the Spanish Civil War. Women and African Americans are afforded less status by mainstream culture and have fewer job opportunities.

There is a good deal of medical talk and details of home births. The Reluctant Midwife is rich in underlying themes as well, such as how the Dust Bowl affected agrarian life in America. During the Dust Bowl, farmers headed west to California where they found hope in more fertile valleys. These regions are now are drying up, just as our western states once again experience drought.

Like the author, I am a baby boomer and many of my relatives shared stories of the Great Depression and their experiences with war. This novel helped me better understand what it was like for my father growing up in the 30's, as my grandfather was a small town country doctor. The historical context adds an important dimension to The Reluctant Midwife; however it is the craftsmanship of Harman's writing and her unique expression that is compelling. A broad audience will thoroughly enjoy this book.

Patricia Harman lives in West Virginia and provides health care to residents of Morgantown where she has been a nurse-midwife and educator. Her journey as a midwife began over 30 years ago, culminating with becoming a registered nurse and licensed as certified nurse midwife. When she and her husband stopped delivering babies, she found time to write and publish her first book, The Blue Cotton Gown: A Midwife's Memoir in 2009. This is her second novel. Visit her website.

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